Before writing your will, start with your stuff

Many of my friends are grieving the loss of singer Prince. My generation grew up on Purple Rain and couldn’t imagine someday being thirtysomethings in 1999. For friends a decade older, Prince’s swift death at age 57 is a mortality check, a reminder to value our lives and loved ones.

Recently, we learned that Prince likely died intestate, that is, without a will. After reading articles such as this one, fans are wondering “Didn’t he have an attorney?” and “How could someone so wealthy not manage his legacy?” The truth is that more than half of us don’t have a will. According to estate attorney Paul Frank, of the Bethlehem law firm King Spry, even some estate lawyers don’t have a will.

The most common reason I hear for not having a will is simply not knowing where to start. Clients tend to think that unless they know all the answers, there’s no point in contacting an estate attorney. I’ve found that the simplest way to get my clients get over this hump is with a asset inventory.

An asset inventory is a list of anything you own that you might want to put in your will. Start with a brainstorm of the assets you think about frequently, such as checking account, 401(k), or the house and car. Once they’re on the list, dig deeper to capture easily forgotten assets such as a pension from a long-ago employer. Don’t forget to include antiques, family heirlooms and the like. Work through your papers and your memories until you’ve identified everything. It helps to capture a recent value of the asset and perhaps think about your beneficiaries.

Once that’s done — or as done as you’re capable at this point — contact your estate attorney. With this list in front of you, you’ll be able to discuss everything of value with your attorney. You’ll know that he or she has all the necessary information to advise you on the best way to document your wishes. To be clear, your asset inventory is only an organizing tool. You still need a will and perhaps other legal documents to carry out your wishes.

I did this exercise with my mother after she received the news of her terminal illness. At first she was daunted, but as the spreadsheet took shape I could see her confidence return and her stress decrease. She told stories about her grandparents and began making decisions about who would received her prized memorabilia. What started as a grim task became lighter with shared memories. And a week later her voice was strong as she told the attorney her wishes. Afterwards she put that task behind her, and set about living the rest of her life.

Live simply,
Organize. Reclaim. Emerge.